Elliott: Gen. Stewart earned his spot at the county courthouse

Elliott: Gen. Stewart earned his spot at the county courthouse

August 4th, 2013 Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

Many in this area are familiar with the statue of Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart in front of the Hamilton County Courthouse. Said to be a lifelike depiction of the general, it gazes benignly down on the occasional visitor to that part of the lawn. The green verdigris does not show the red hair and freckles that reflected Stewart's Scots-Irish descent. Few ask why, of all the Civil War veterans connected to Chattanooga, Stewart graces the front of our courthouse. The answer lies, in part, in what occurred in the Chattanooga area in 1863.

Stewart was born in Rogersville, Tenn., in 1821, and moved with his family to Winchester, Tenn., when he was about 10 years of age. From Winchester, he went to the United States Military Academy, graduating in the class of 1842. Stewart left the army before the Mexican War, and became well-known as a teacher of mathematics related subjects at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. Stewart opposed secession and never owned slaves, but offered his sword to his state when Tennessee left the Union. Stewart fought for the Confederacy, most notably at Shiloh, Perryville, and Murfreesboro.

When the Confederate Army of Tennessee retreated into the Chattanooga area in July, 1863, Stewart commanded a division of primarily Tennessee troops. Thrown into the Battle of Chickamauga mid-day on September 19, 1863, Stewart launched a fierce counter-attack that demonstrated superb tactical skill, blunting a dangerous Federal attack and piercing the Union line all the way to the Dyer Tanyard. His troops were hotly engaged on September 20, contributing to the eventual Confederate victory.

At Chattanooga, Stewart's troops fortified a position in Chattanooga Valley until withdrawn to the top of Missionary Ridge, holding a line from Bragg Reservation to Rossville. Stewart did not have sufficient men to hold that length of line, and his division was badly beaten when attacked by elements of four Federal divisions on November 25, 1863. When his line was pierced, he conducted a skillful retreat across South Chickamauga Creek, saving his men to fight another day.

A man of quiet competence and a devout Presbyterian, Stewart was known as "Old Straight," either reflecting his uprightness or his days teaching mathematics. In the first part of the Atlanta Campaign, Stewart fought with competence and bravery, so that when Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk was killed on June 14, 1864, Stewart was elevated to command his corps, being deemed as the most qualified of the major generals of the Army of Tennessee for the post. Stewart completed the war in corps command, fighting through the Atlanta Campaign, advancing into Tennessee to Franklin and Nashville, and surrendering with General Johnston and the remnant of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina in April, 1865.

Stewart returned to Cumberland for a few years after the war, but the opportunity to make money led him into the insurance business in St. Louis. In 1874, however, Stewart became Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and spent twelve years at that institution. He wrote one of the first histories of the Army of Tennessee, and was involved in Confederate veteran affairs. Stewart always maintained that the southern states had the right to secede, but held that it failed because the Almighty "had need of this Union ... for the accomplishment of His great designs."

When Congress created the Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park in 1890, the authorizing legislation required that a Confederate veteran of the battle be a member of the governing park commission. At age 69, Stewart returned to Chattanooga with his wife and worked tirelessly to acquire, mark and establish the park. Until his mid-80's Stewart lived in Chattanooga or down near the park. In late 1905, Stewart moved to St. Louis to be near family, and later to Biloxi for health reasons, where he peacefully died on August 30, 1908.

It was during his time as commissioner of the park that Stewart became a beloved figure in Chattanooga, and lived for a time after his wife's death with the socially prominent Maj. Moses H. Clift and his wife. Stewart was honored when the local United Daughters of the Confederacy named their chapter after him, and they again honored him eleven years after his death with the statue that guards the courthouse lawn.

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon. He is on the board of the Friends of the Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park and the author or editor of three books on the Civil War. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.